Use and Management
The basic outlay of services available on an ES system are about what one would expect to find on any Linux distribution, commercial or not. As we mentioned earlier, Red Hat has outfitted the distro with basic Web, database, mail, file, and print services. It can also handle networking tasks such as DHCP and DNS.
Most of ES' available services are at least somewhat configurable through a collection of graphical tools on the root user's desktop. It is relatively simple, for example, to create a few basic Samba shares with the appropriate tool. More advanced performance tuning options aren't presented, though. Similarly, the Apache tool allows for a simple server to be configured using a collection of virtual hosts and optional SSL support for each and a few basic performance-tuning options. We were also able to set up DNS zones with relative ease.
For managing the operating system itself, there are configuration tools to manage some kernel configuration options (such as turning on or configuring syncookies, which can be used to shield against denial of service attacks) and which services are running on the system at all (allowing a simple point-and-click way to make sure unneeded and unconfigured services aren't running).
All told, as nice as the graphical tools are, we didn't find ourselves warming up to them much. Some of them were merely adequate, and all of them left us with the feeling that while they'd work for a truly simple installation, any detailed work would require getting under the hood and into the configuration files themselves.
Red Hat's GUI menu system could also use some work as far as overall organization goes. We were puzzled, for example, to visit a "system tools" menu, click on a "configuration editor" icon among the icons for tuning the kernel or switching the default MTA, and not only find that we'd accessed a desktop configuration utility, but also that Red Hat thoughtfully provided a popup window to recommended we not use it.
Those complaints aside, getting around an ES server is not particularly tricky. It's easy to find the most basic configuration options and handle most maintenance tasks with relative ease, the tradeoff being less help for advanced configuration. For a product aimed firmly at departments and light edge-of-network duty, that's probably not a huge issue considering Red Hat's installation and configuration support.
Errata management is handled via the up2date package, which puts a helpful icon in the system tray of the root user's desktop that indicates when new patches are available. up2date logs in to the Red Hat Network, sorts out the dependencies associated with updating a package, and handles download and installation. It's an easy process, and Windows admins will find it pleasantly devoid of the need to reboot with each patch -- except in cases where the Linux kernel itself must be updated. In general, Red Hat's quite good about restarting any effected services once up2date has updated them.
The primary value of Red Hat Enterprise Linux ES is the support. It's the deciding factor in the price difference between the Basic and Standard Editions.
Basic Edition customers get 30 days of installation and basic configuration support for their money. They can also expect a next-day turnaround on support calls, which are received during normal business hours across the United States. In addition, they receive a year of Web-based support, with a turnaround of two business days for queries.
Standard Edition customers receive what Red Hat calls its "ES Standard" support package: very specific help with a variety of configuration and installation tasks. The Standard Edition support package also includes a year of phone support, with a response time of four hours.
Both editions are eligible for a year of Red Hat Network (RHN) errata support via the RHN Update Module. Each is also eligible (in most cases) for purchase of the RHN Management Module, which allows for more complex package management by allowing admins to group multiple systems together for mass errata updates and package load comparisons. The addition of this module pushes the price of the Basic Edition up to $445 and the Standard Edition up to $895.
From a strictly technical standpoint, Red Hat ES isn't particularly noteworthy: It's a collection of software compiled and packaged up, given a few management tools of varying quality, and pushed out the door. We did not notice any functionality unique to this Linux distribution, and there are certainly others out there that could fill the role of "departmental server" with equal facility for a lower price.
At the end of the day, Red Hat ES in either edition is less about selling a technical solution than it is about selling support, and perhaps subsidizing a longer release cycle for the company's Enterprise Linux lineup. In the past year, Red Hat took a number of steps to cut out the costs associated with retail marketing, foregoing the revenue of a semi-annual or annual release cycle that comes with pushing shrinkwrap, and set its sights on the business market, where the prevailing assumption is that support and some sort of accountability must exist before a piece of software may be put into use.
Red Hat is also selling compatibility with a broad array of business applications. Offerings from BEA, Oracle, Sybase, Veritas, and many others are all certified to run on top of Red Hat's product line. That software support list narrows the field of potential competitors dramatically, and it's what keeps Red Hat ahead of the game and realistically able to charge a substantial amount for an average-to-good offering.
Pros: Strong support system in place; Compatible with a broad array of business applications; Easy to install, configure, and manage
Cons: Nothing noteworthy from a technological or functionality perspective
Reviewed by: Michael Hall
Original Review Date: 2/24/2004
Original Review Version: 3.0